Tag Archives: Sam Neill

Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.

The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.

But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.

The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.

Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.

Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.

James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.

The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.

Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).


In the Mouth of Madness (1994, John Carpenter)

In the Mouth of Madness is a rarity. It’s a film with some terrible, terrible parts, yet it needs to be longer. There needs to be more terribleness for it to be better. And it can’t even be much better, because those terrible parts break it, but it would be somewhat better. It would definitely be a better viewing experience.

Here are the film’s problems, in no particular order. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography. Madness is Panavision aspect and Kibbe shoots everything spherically distorted. Well, not everything, but the most visually distinctive parts. One of the film’s more conceptual problems is what visually compels. Kibbe screws up the compelling visual narrative pacing. Maybe Carpenter told him to do it, in which case it’s Carpenter’s bad. But Kibbe’s photography is never great. With the sets, it sometimes looks like a shoddy attempt at a Shining rip-off and Madness isn’t that thing at all.

Next problem. Sam Neill. Fourth-rate Harrison Ford who everyone thought was just a second-rate Harrison Ford. He can’t hold his accent, which would be a hilarious bit for the film to acknowledge, but of course it doesn’t. Even though Madness eventually wants to be meta, it’s like Carpenter doesn’t really have any interest in it, which brings me to the next problem. The script. The script is awful.

Even though Carpenter goes for his traditional possessive titling on Madness, it’s not his vanity project. It’s writer and executive producer Michael De Luca’s vanity project. So while Carpenter can do a nod to this Quatermass here, that Corman there, this Lovecraft adaptation here, that whatever there, he’s still got this disastrous script. De Luca’s doing zeitgeist–Neill is hunting down Jürgen Prochnow’s Stephen King-esque author, not Prochnow’s Lovecraft-esque author. The script wants to be pop culture, the narrative needs literary musing, Carpenter’s doing this Lovecraft movie homage thing. Not to mention De Luca also models the structure after a film noir (Double Indemnity in particular) and Carpenter couldn’t, frankly, give less of a shit about that narrative structure. He goes out of his way not to acknowledge it.

And if you’re not going to acknowledge your femme fatale, maybe you shouldn’t have a femme fatale. Madness’s femme fatale is Julie Carmen. She’s Prochnow’s editor and Neill’s sidekick. Carmen and Neill have no chemistry, which isn’t really surprising since she’s awful. He’s awful too, but she’s awful in a different way. She doesn’t have a part. He’s just bad at his part. The film also breaks its narrative device to run off with her adventures; if the movie were a little better, it might be annoying but it’s not. The script’s already been inept at that point.

Prochnow’s bad, but it isn’t his fault. He’s just doing his schtick. It’s why he’s in the movie.

Stylistically, the front is stronger than the back. Once Neill and Carmen find Prochnow, Edward A. Warschilka’s editing starts to falter. It was one of the few excellent things about the beginning. By the end, Carpenter relies heavily on jump scares. They aren’t scary, they’re occasionally desperate, but at least he’s enthusiastic about them. There are some okay visual ideas but there’s no time for Madness to make them stick. It isn’t just the film needing another ten or fifteen minutes of visual presence to make an impression, it’s the order of the shots. Part of the film’s gimmick (Prochnow writing reality) means visual trickery. Carpenter, Kibbe and Warschilka just blaze through instead of making anything distinct.

Charlton Heston’s in a “guest starring” role and he gives one of the film’s better performances. If you’ve got a hackneyed Heston cameo and he gives the best performance, you know the film’s got problems. Bernie Casey’s good, Peter Jason’s got a nice scene. John Glover. He’s fine. Frances Bay should have a great small role and she doesn’t. Because the script’s crap and Carpenter never pushes against it.

Oh, and who thought giving Wilhelm von Homburg the film’s most important part would be a good idea? He’s awful, but of course he’s awful, he’s obviously awful and no one should’ve kept him in. You feel bad for him. But only him. Everyone else who’s awful, you blame them.

Just because it’s an apocalyptic downer doesn’t mean the entire thing should feel like a surrender, yet it does. Madness is a defeat.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Michael De Luca; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Carpenter and Jim Lang; production designer, Jeff Ginn; produced by Sandy King; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Sam Neill (John Trent), Julie Carmen (Linda Styles), Jürgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane), David Warner (Dr. Wrenn), John Glover (Saperstein), Bernie Casey (Robinson), Peter Jason (Mr. Paul), Wilhelm von Homburg (Simon), Frances Bay (Mrs. Pickman) and Charlton Heston (Jackson Harglow).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | JOHN CARPENTER, PART 4: THE MUNDANE YEARS.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992, John Carpenter)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is pointless. Most of its problems stem from the film’s lack of focus–in some ways, given Chevy Chase is a stockbroker and leads a life of extreme comfort, it ought to be an examination of eighties yuppies. Only a few years late. Except it’s obvious director Carpenter doesn’t want to do that story; he’s less engaged in those scenes than any of the others.

Carpenter does surprisingly well with the romantic comedy angle. The sequence where Chase meets Daryl Hannah is beautifully shot.

The film’s also not about Chase being disconnected from the world before he becomes invisible–that aspect comes up in some terrible dialogue, very poorly presented by Sam Neill. Neill plays the film’s villain, a ruthless CIA operative who has a gang of poorly defined sidekicks and an asinine boss (Stephen Tobolowsky). If it weren’t for Tobolowsky’s terrible performance, Neill would give the worst one in the film.

A lot of Memoirs relies on Chase’s charm and, in some ways, he does deliver. Not often enough and not with enough quantity, however. The script’s really bad when it comes to defining his character; the first act is a particularly mess, then though Rosalind Chao is excellent as his secretary for two minutes.

Michael McKean plays his friend. He’s ineffectual, but not bad.

Another big problem is the narration. Memoirs is desperate for Fletch appeal; it doesn’t have it.

It moves quickly, the special effects are great, but it’s a stinker otherwise.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Robert Collector, Dana Olsen and William Goldman, based on the novel by H.F. Saint; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Marion Rothman; music by Shirley Walker; production designer, Laurence G. Paull; produced by Bruce Bodner and Dan Kolsrud; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Chevy Chase (Nick Halloway), Daryl Hannah (Alice Monroe), Sam Neill (David Jenkins), Stephen Tobolowsky (Warren Singleton), Michael McKean (George Talbot), Gregory Paul Martin (Richard), Patricia Heaton (Ellen), Rosalind Chao (Cathy DiTolla), Jay Gerber (Roger Whitman) and Jim Norton (Dr. Bernard Wachs).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | JOHN CARPENTER, PART 4: THE MUNDANE YEARS.

Escape Plan (2013, Mikael Håfström)

Given how much fun the actors have in Escape Plan, there are a couple big unfortunates. First is director Håfström; he isn’t able to direct the actors through the poorly scripted parts and he also can’t direct the one-liners. Plan is the first time Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever done a buddy picture together. For a ten minute stretch, it’s like there’s nothing but one-liners.

The second problem is the script. It flounders when setting up Stallone’s character. He works with Curtis Jackson, Amy Ryan and Vincent D’Onofrio. D’Onofrio has a lot of fun in a tiny part–these three characters only show up for maybe five or six minutes of runtime–but he completely overshadows Ryan and Jackson. They’re just doing the script, D’Onofrio turns the weak script into loads of entertainment.

Another person having fun in an underwritten role is Jim Caviezel as the warden. The film concerns Stallone (as a prison break specialist) and Schwarzenegger (as a lackey for a Julian Assange type) breaking out of a prison. Caviezel turns the part into a whirlwind of overcompensation, meanness and pure fun. He’s like Willy Wonka at times.

Of the two leads, Schwarzenegger’s better. He didn’t suffer through the lame setup with Ryan and Jackson.

Faran Tahir is really good as another inmate.

Plan is really entertaining for the bulk of it, just not the beginning or the end. It needed a better script doctor.

It also needed better music. Alex Heffes’s score’s atrocious.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mikael Håfström; screenplay by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, based on a story by Chapman; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Elliot Greenberg; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Robbie Brenner, Mark Canton, Randall Emmett, George Furla and Kevin King Templeton; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Breslin), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Rottmayer), Jim Caviezel (Hobbes), Faran Tahir (Javed), Sam Neill (Dr. Kyrie), Vincent D’Onofrio (Lester Clark), Vinnie Jones (Drake), Matt Gerald (Roag), Curtis Jackson (Hush), Caitriona Balfe (Jessica Miller), Christian Stokes (Babcock), Graham Beckel (Brims) and Amy Ryan (Abigail).


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